TRAVERSE CITY — Every Friday, 400 lemons are hand-peeled at the rustic Northern Latitudes distillery in Lake Leelanau, and passersby may even be asked to help.
“It’s for our limoncello,” said business co-owner Amanda “Mandy” Moseler. “It’s an Italian liquor and you have to get that thin layer of zest. You put the peels in 190 proof vodka and steep for a week, then take it down to 60 proof. It’s so good!”
Moseler and her husband Mark have joined the ranks of local artisan distillers who produce their own vodkas, gins and other spirits. Their number is small — only five or so — but they're shaking things up.
Just recently Grand Traverse Distillery was awarded a gold medal for its “Ole George” aged rye whiskey by the American Distilling Institute. Its success follows on the heels of the distillery's True North Vodka that's garnered many national and international awards.
“Out of 250 distilleries, ours was the top-picked rye whiskey,” said owner Kent Rabish. “The reason why is we actually distill it here. If you buy mass-produced whiskey, you’re not going to taste any different than the next guy.”
The artisan distilleries clink nicely with the region's multitude of foodies, farms, wineries and breweries. As of this fall, for example, Rabish will have bought one million pounds of Michigan grown grains, mostly from a Williamsburg farm.
"It's huge. The region started out with wine in the 1960s," he said. "Now we have 30 to 40 vineyards between Old Mission and Leelanau. Twenty years ago, the craft breweries started opening up. Now there are nine or 10, with three more coming on line. So you'll have a dozen brewers in Traverse City making terrific beer. You won't have a dozen distillers, but you'll have more and more opening in Michigan."